Suddenly we are old. We don’t feel as old as we thought we were going to feel when we got old. But we see the wrinkles and the receding hairline, and we really can’t do all that we used to be able to do. We don’t see as well. We don’t hear as well. So we hate to drive at night. Four o’clock dinner at Luby’s begins to sound good.
Society is watching us. The “boomers” have passed 65 and are retiring. We are the fastest growing segment in our economy, we are told. Television ads portray us as the “new young”; gray-haired and crisply-dressed, we are supposed to be taking cruises and reading to beautiful grandchildren and hiking Mt. Everest just to prove we can. But only if you have the health and money to do that. And most of us don’t.
And what about our souls? In her book The Gift of Years, Joan Chittister says: “What [the study of] gerontology is lacking is the awareness of the spiritual dimension of the only part of life that gives us the resources we need to make a long-term evaluation of the nature and meaning of life itself. In fact, as the physical dimension of life diminishes, the spiritual dimension commonly increases.”
The Rev. Ron Rolheiser, Past-President of Oblate Seminary, adds, “We lack a spirituality, a practical understanding and virtually any program for the last stage of life. Consequently, by and large, all our efforts are about extending our generative and productive years as long as possible. Deep down we have an instinctive sense of where we should be going, but because we have no articulation for it, no communal structure and vision for it, and no place to turn to develop it, we often lack the vision, courage, and support to do anything radical.”
Frankly, it is a mistake to see the signs of aging as indications of dying rather than as invitations into a deeper way of life. These are the years when we have the time to look deeply at our relationship with God, to finally live into all that God is calling us to become, and to see these years as blessings rather than burdens.
Part of the invitation of the later years is to emerge as the “elders” in our communities. We are the evidence of Emmanuel – God with us. We are the ones who can encourage others to stay the course, to choose wisely, to think about priorities and spend resources in those places that are life-giving. We have walked the walk and are here to tell the stories.
And we have skills and abilities honed over years of doing it wrong and learning from it. We have time to donate, now that we are done working our careers and raising children and paying the mortgage. We are called to be a blessing to others.
So what does our faith have to say to us now? What does the Church have to say to us? Maybe the better question is, “What do we have to say to the Church?” What does spiritual formation look like now? How do we help those people who are in their last third of their lives embrace both the challenges and the blessings of this time?
And how can we help our congregations understand and embrace the needs of the elderly while recognizing the tremendous resource they can be to the Church and local communities.
We can begin by recognizing that:
As our physical bodies diminish, there is a call to strengthen our inner self.
The tasks and challenges of our later years are different from those of our previous years, even our preceding adult years.
We need a model for living out our wisdom years that focuses on reaching our fullness in God.
The spiritual longing of our later years needs to be recognized, attended to, and nurtured.
Realizing this, parish ministry for, by, and with elders might include:
- Providing resources and encouragement for personal spiritual growth
– Through intentional prayer, study, and worship
- Formation of cohort groups that travel the journey together
- For companionship and support
- Regular, organized study of scripture and other resources specifically for elders
- Which could start with a reading list of on-topic books at http://www.wisdomyears.org
- Assessment of particular gifts/skills/abilities of elders
- To match the resources of individuals and the parish with the particular needs of the community
- Intentional integration into the life of the parish
- Providing opportunities for people to hear and listen to each other across the generational divide
- Identification of the practical needs of elders and programs to meet those needs
- Daily morning check-in buddies
- Rides to church
- Assistance with physical needs
If you and the congregation of which you are a part finds these ideas compelling, we invite you to explore the possibilities for ministry with older adults by contacting the Wisdom Years team. Email Marjorie George at firstname.lastname@example.org